If you are browsing through bookshops looking for inspiration for Christmas presents, you may come titles such as ‘The Little Book of Hygge’; ‘How to Hygge’; or ‘The Art of Hygge’. What is ‘hygge’ (pronounced hue-gah) and why is an economist writing about it?
Simply put, ‘hygge’ is a Danish word to describe a feeling or mood that comes taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary, everyday things more meaningful, beautiful or special. For Danes, it can be something as simple as lingering over a cup of coffee in a cosy Copenhagen café to the act of lighting a candle with every meal. While there’s no one English word to describe hygge, several can be used interchangeably to describe the idea of hygge such as cosiness, charm, happiness, security, familiarity, comfort, and simpleness.
For an economist, it is an interesting concept for a number of reasons. First, it is evident that, despite the official GDP and national income statistics, many people do not feel better off. ‘Happiness economics’ is a very topical area of research at present.
Economists have always known that wealth alone does not bring happiness; however, their focus has typically been on wealth and income indicators. Of course, psychologists have analysed the sources of human satisfaction in detail for decades. Psychologists believe that a concept such as subjective well-being can be studied, in part, by asking people how they feel.
This idea received official backing in July 2011, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. On April 2, 2012, this was followed by the first UN High Level Meeting on ‘Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm,’ which was chaired by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, the first and so far only country to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product (GDP) as their main development indicator.
The first UN World Happiness Report was released on April 1, 2012. It outlined the state of world happiness, causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications highlighted by case studies. Data are collected from people in over 150 countries. Each variable measured reveals a populated-weighted average score on a scale running from 0 to 10 that is tracked over time and compared against other countries.
These variables include: real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.
The Happiest People in the World
So how does relate back to ‘hygge’? Well, a quick Google search for the “world’s happiest country” leads you to the VisitDenmark.com website, where the front page says ‘Welcome to Denmark: Happiest Country on Earth”. Yes, for 2013, 2014, and 2016 Denmark ranked number one on the UN’s World Happiness Index (it came second in 2015). The ‘Happiest People in the World’ section of the Danish tourist site mentions the leisure time and the art of ‘hygge’ as one of its key social features. For the record, Switzerland ranked second and Iceland came third in 2016, while Ireland ranked 19th this year.
However, scented candles and cosy fires are not sufficient and the Danes know that perfectly well. They place a strong emphasis on work-life balance (a normal work-week is 37 hours and Danish employees benefit from 5 weeks of holiday a year); it is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in terms of gender and other social issues; and more generally, the social concept known as ‘trust’ is a key factor in the Dane’s prescription of happiness. Indeed, the only crime and corruption that you are likely to experience is in “Scandi Noir” television programmes such as ‘The Killing’ or ‘Borgen’.
However, Meik Wiking, the author of “The Little Book of Hygge” and the chief executive of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute believes hygge could be the “missing ingredient” that leads to Denmark regularly topping world happiness rankings. Other Scandinavian and Northern European countries share Denmark’s social security, equality, wealth and tolerance. So, perhaps there is something in hygge?
Finally, given that ‘hygge’ is now so prevalent, economic and psychologist hipsters may prefer the German and Dutch versions, namely gemütlichkeit and gezelligheid. However, I cannot see ‘The Little Book of Gezelligheid’ selling too many copies for Christmas 2017!